Do Big 4 consultants have deep tech skill?

One of the common questions I get from new graduates and people considering a role as a technology-focused management consultant is the type of work they’d be doing at a Big 4 consulting firm. Question circle around the level of technical work performed. Outside of the type of work performed, it’s a good idea to understand the capability of a Big 4 versus a technical consultant. I’ll pull back the layers and help prospects new to consulting and customers interested to the depths of services offered by Big 4.

Advisers first

Whether you are a customer or a job candidate of a Big 4, the one thing to keep in mind is that Big 4 consultants are advisers. As advisers it’s helpful to have deep technical skill but not a prerequisite. It’s common for me to hear frontline client employee provide commentary of how a Big 4 consultant doesn’t know how to perform a technical task such as write a script for an application auto-starting. A famous saying is that Big 4 consultants “don’t do anything.” While an exaggeration, there’s a bit of truth to the statement.

It’s an important reminder that customers don’t pay advisers a premium rate to perform commodity tasks. Configuring a storage array is a job that a vendor engineer can perform. Designing a storage layout is something most value added resellers are best suited to perform. Advising if your company should take the risk of adopting cloud-based storage or invest $2M on a traditional array is best left to an adviser. There’s not much value in an adviser knowing how to configure AWS S3 storage. While the information is helpful knowledge, it’s not a task you pay a premium to perform.

Typical work day

What does the typical work day or week look like for a technology management consultant? The answer is that it varies. There’s a combination of different responsibilities. During a typical work week, you’ll find that you have competing interests for your time. I’ll break them into 3-different areas.

Client

While staffed at a client, you are naturally expected to deliver the work contracted by your customer. If you are new to the workforce, you can expect a good deal of data collection and management. Expect to do a good amount of client interviews and report preparation. You’ll find yourself updating project status, coordinating meetings and random tasks required by the customer team. At this point, you are learning the business. You should look to pick up an unofficial mentor for each project that will help you expand your skill.

If you are a bit more experienced, you’ll get more time with client executives. You’ll help customers ask the right questions as well as create and manage the delivery of work. The work is non-technical in nature. It’s taking the data collected during the discovery portion of the project and putting your years of experience behind it to get answers. You aren’t sharpening your technical skill as much as putting it to use with your business knowledge to obtain answers.

Firm

Most firms don’t have a dedicated sales team. It’s the job of managers, directors and partners to obtain new business. Note: If you have decades of experience designing, implementing and managing the installation of technology and no experience selling services, you can expect to come in at the manager level.

No matter your level, you will spend time reinvesting in the firm. Re-investment includes creating engagement templates, updating firm tools and working on proposals for new work. The load can vary, and there isn’t always someone there to remind you of these responsibilities. If you go the year ignoring your firm responsibilities, then you may find that you’re not very happy at your performance review no matter your client performance.

When not staffed on a project, you’ll spend your time looking for a new project and focusing on your firm responsibilities.

Social

Social is kind of my catch-all bucket for all those soft things outside of traditional work. One huge consideration is volunteer or community work. Big 4’s pride themselves on giving back to the community. Each firm has a core area of giving. You are expected to give back in the form of volunteer work. The work could include participating in an event sponsored by the firm or organizing an event on your own. Participating in college recruiting is also expected.

The other social area is building relationships within and outside the firm. You are supposed to go out socially with clients and co-workers. I will not sugar-coat this area. If you are constantly turning down opportunities to dine with clients and co-workers, you will not be long for the Big 4 world.

The value

In the end, the value of hiring a Big 4 management consultant is that you get a broad range of knowledge and the capability to answer tough business questions. A good adviser will help you ask the right questions and guide you to partners that can help create and implement detailed execution. I would not hire a Big 4 to deliver the technical portion of a project. I’d wouldn’t hesitate to engage them to help provide some rigor and oversight but not manage the actual execution.

If you are a job seeker looking to work for a Big 4, don’t expect to deepen your technology knowledge. You’ll benefit from the exposure to severe business challenges but your technical skill will more or less stagnant if you aren’t aggressively keeping up with technology via self-study.

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